V for Vendetta Directed by James McTeigue Now playing
The Battle of Algiers
Directed by Gillo Pontecorvo Criterion Collection DVD
Is torture getting more entertaining? Several critics have recently pondered why graphic torture scenes have come to occupy a central place in contemporary horror films. In response to Eli Roth’s bloodbath Hostel occupying the top spot at the box office early this year, New York’s David Edelstein, a self-proclaimed “horror maven who long ago made peace… with the genre’s inherent sadism,” professed, “I’m baffled by how far this new stuff goes — and by why America seems so nuts these days about torture.” The influence of Japanese gore masters like Takashi Miike is a likely source (and perhaps the giant mainstream success of snuff film-turned-revelation, The Passion of the Christ), but certainly so are the definitive images of the 21st century thus far, second only to the destruction of the World Trade Center: the torture photographs from Abu Ghraib, with which, Edelstein notes, “a large segment of the population evidently has no problem.” But at the risk of defending the ethical fiber of the American moviegoer, doesn’t the notion that our complicity with the torture policies of the Bush Administration is linked directly to our bloodlust on the screen seem a bit uncharitable? Do most of us really view images of actual torture with the buttered popcorn-infused delight we bring to the multiplex for Saw or The Devil’s Rejects?
The Wachowski Brothers’ postapocalyptic farce V for Vendetta aims to test whether American audiences can watch torture seriously. [spoiler alert] Midway through the film, the reluctant hero Evey, played by Natalie Portman, is tortured and interrogated about her relationship with the shadowy terrorist known as V, who is wanted for assassinating heads of state and blowing up government buildings. Evey’s ordeal, which includes hooded capture, water-boarding, beating, and other now-familiar hallmarks, turns out to be a ruse concocted by V to test her resolve. But while the rest of the film is a cartoonish romp of over-the-top Orwellian fascism, these deceptive scenes are in fact its most real: they reflect accurately what we are actually doing to people in Guantanamo Bay, Iraq and Afghanistan, and an unknown number of secret prisons around the world. Unlike recent horror movies, V for Vendetta hopes to provoke American audiences to begin to do something Europeans have been struggling with on film for four decades: to face the realities of our foreign policy where they are most immediate, inside the torture chamber.
Perhaps the most famous cinematic attempt at such a confrontation is Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers. Released in 1965, three years after a free Algeria emerged from over a century of French colonial rule, the film simultaneously follows Ali La Pointe, a rebel in the National Liberation Front (FLN) and the French colonel Phillipe Mathieu through the insurgency that sparked the war of independence and the brutal response by the French army. Although the film’s core narrative ends with the defeat of the FLN, and the recapture by Mathieu of the Casbah, the city’s Arab sector, a coda shows a swelling of popular resistance to the occupation two years later that ultimately leads to French withdrawal. So while Mathieu’s army crushes the FLN rebellion, it fails to turn the tide of nationalist struggle.
When it was released, The Battle of Algiers was a rallying cry for the left, reinforcing the prevailing attitude that insurgencies always won; that the old imperial power was inexorably marching toward collapse under the weight of popular resistance. Today’s insurgencies, and the world as a whole, look quite different, but a central thesis in the film, one that is now our national policy, is that the French were able to break the FLN network that was opposing their occupation of Algeria through torture.
The film opens with French soldiers ridiculing a gaunt, disconsolate man who has evidently just informed on his comrades under torture. As he is about to be released, he breaks free of the guards, crying out and throwing himself against the window of his cell. It seems to be his humanity courageously breaking out from physical and moral defeat, but as we learn shortly thereafter, all the remaining rebels have been arrested or killed. The battle has ended with the French occupiers victorious, and the rest is told in flashback. This man’s outburst is only a final act of desperation; a hopeless scream, heard only by his taunting captors.
There is nothing to be relished in the opening scene of The Battle of Algiers, as it confronts the viewer with the reality of torture in its aftermath; the psychological scarring that must, by the nature of its genre, be absent from horror movies. By replicating familiar, nonfictional images of torture — by imitating life — V for Vendetta seeks to evoke this seriousness. But is this hyperrealism enough to make the American audience step back and realize its complicity as a viewer? To overcome its apathy? The trouble with V for Vendetta is that while the torture of Natalie Portman apes real military practices, its context is supremely fake, both in the sense that the torture is ultimately a hoax orchestrated by the character V, but also in its effect: the victim sticks to her convictions, wins the battle of wills with her torturers, and goes on to bring down “The State” in one spectacular act of sophomoric violence.
By contrast, the victims in The Battle of Algiers all give in, and though the Algerian people rise up in an unexplained, and anticlimactic, denouement, the French interrogation tactics succeed in wiping out the FLN resistance. There are no acts of heroism emanating from the torture chamber. As the narrator of another film about the French occupation of Algeria, Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Petit Soldat, puts it, “Torture is so monotonous and sad. It’s difficult to talk about, so I’ll barely talk about it.” These unflinching cinematic exposures of recent European history by Europeans do not gloss the impact of imperial abuse; if there is any silver lining, it is disconnected, unexplained. This is a reality that we Americans must learn how to watch.
In August 2003, three months after President Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq, the Pentagon held a screening of The Battle of Algiers. The announcement for the screening advertised the film as a lesson in “how to win the battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas... The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but it fails strategically.” This strategic failure was the inability of the French occupying army to convince the Algerians that they, rather than the terrorist insurgents, were acting in the people’s best interests. Instead of engaging in a campaign to win hearts and minds, the French bought their own propaganda, believing that by decimating the insurgency through arrests, torture, and intimidation, they could foreclose the broader resistance all together.
Despite the Pentagon’s mini film festival, the U.S. has taken a similarly short-sighted approach to the global war on terror. As in our films, we are unable to see the consequences of our actions, preferring instead the fantasy that hasty, illegitimate democracies will simultaneously serve our interests and heal centuries-old grievances. It is becoming quite clear, if it wasn’t from the opening scene, that this film will have no Hollywood ending.